Nosh Box: Nothing to Wine About
Cabernet Sauvignon grapes.
QUESTION: What sound does a grape make when you step on it?
ANSWER: Just a little wine. But that punch line doesn’t always hold true.
More than 85 kinds of grapes grow in California. And the seven leading varieties—in order of popularity and bulk sales—are all wine grapes: cabernet sauvignon, chardonnay, merlot, pinot noir, sauvignon, syrah and zinfandel. When it comes to the fruit of the vine, all the splash and glory reside with those grown to ferment into wines.
Table Grapes vs. Wine Grapes—Perhaps the only well-known table grape is the Thompson Seedless. Cabernet grapes sell above $7,000/ton, while Thompson Seedless grapes go for $350/T—with some raisin varieties reaching $1,700/T. All table grape varieties are seedless, with predominantly large or extra-large berries. Wine grapes contain seeds that contribute to the tannins developed during the crush.
While table grapes may play poor stepsister to wine varieties, the former are held to a higher standard in several ways. Selected by consumers to be eaten whole—rather than crushed—table grapes must be blemish-free physically. Not so with wine grapes. Skeptics say you shouldn’t see how sausage is made—learning what’s ground into it, then stuffed into pig intestines. Like the sausage analogy, people shouldn’t witness what goes into the wine crush.
So-Cal Focus—In the most southern region of our state, table grape harvest usually runs in late spring to mid-July in the hot deserts of Coachella Valley. In the San Joaquin Valley, harvest begins in late June and continues through late fall. Seasonal prices are usually lowest during the overlap in July, when supplies peak because both regions are shipping grapes to market. California table grapes are available from May through January. Varieties appearing prior to May originate outside the state—or outside the country.
50 Years Ago— “Viva la Huelga” – Back when an overnight stay at a Motel 6 cost exactly that, California table grapes caused ferment rather than fermentation. From 1965 through 1970 Cesar Chavez, supported by Delores Huerta, waged a five-year battle to organize the table-grape workers in the Delano fields. Their efforts led to the formation and certification of the United Farm Worker’s union, bringing better working conditions for all migrant farm workers within the state.
Non-alcoholic grape juice—Crushing simply breaks grape berries, allowing the juice, pulp, and seeds to mingle with the grape skins and stems—along with other stuff. Pressing, on the other hand, separates the grape juice from the fiber and other solids that make up a berry. Table grapes are used for non-alcoholic grape juices, along with a few wine varietals. However, the latter are economically best suited for fermenting wine.
Recipes—Besides providing a healthy snack, table grapes appear frequently in recipes: roasted in a Brussels sprout medley, baked in a tart or a clafoutis, or added to salads that range from tossed-green to tuna.
But a favorite is a simple roasted dish that may be served as a first course or an entrée. Start with Italian sausage links, sweet or hot: one per person for an appetizer, or two for a main dish. Prick the casings to prevent bursting during cooking. Place in a gratin dish surrounded by red, green, or mixed table grapes. Drizzle with EVOO, then sprinkle with dried oregano. Roast in a 400°F oven until the sausages reach 160°F internal. And to keep everything in the same family, enjoy this dish with a glass of either Merlot or Chardonnay.